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loose canons
There's a thin line between saintliness and madness. Here are inspiring tales of holy folly that laugh in the face of human wisdom... and also breathtaking examples of religious stupidity that fly in the face of common sense.

As told by Stephen Tomkins

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20: The prostitutes' padre
HERE IS GOOD PRECEDENT for a Christian who feels called to be "the friend of prostitutes and sinners". However, there is a crucial distinction between friend and client, just as there is between scorning respectable social values and being unhinged. Rev. Harold Davidson was, I think it is fair to say, a little hazy about both.

Calling himself "The Prostitute's Padre", he spent six days a week ministering to the scarlet women of London for a quarter of a century from the 1900s. He was supposed to be the Rector of Stiffkey in Norfolk, but only came back for Sundays.

His usual mission strategy was to tell young streetwalkers (or waitresses – he wasn't particular) that they looked like famous actresses, follow them home after a hard night's work and ask them out for coffee. And if they were lucky, they got a trip to Paris under an assumed name too.

He was perfectly open about his work – or the less undercover parts of it, at least. He often took the girls home to meet the family. He gave extravagantly to them, though he rarely seems to have kept his promise to help them start a new life. Apparently he assumed his company and conversation was the most useful charity he could give them.

Stiffkey eventually had enough of tarts on the Rectory lawn, and in 1932 the Church of England put Davidson on trial for sexual misconduct. He had a whale of a time, and especially enjoyed the testimonies for the prosecution. Despite them all, he utterly maintained his innocence, to the extent of claiming not to know what a buttock was.

The newspapers also loved the trial. Davidson became a celebrity, so when he was found guilty on every count, he took to show biz to fund an appeal.

First of all he exhibited himself in a barrel on Blackpool prom for tuppence a look. Soon he was telling his story to crowds of thousands, so he took the show to theatres, fairs, cinemas and the odd nudist camp.

It was a hit, but the crowds soon dwindled, so he took to increasingly dramatic publicity stunts. His most inspired and extreme stunt was to proclaim his innocence Daniel-like from the lion's den in Skegness Zoo... until he was mauled by a normally docile lion, Freddie, while preaching from the Bible.

Davidson was evidently as convinced as he was unconvincing in his stance as innocent holy martyr. It wasn't the world's greatest cause, but he gave it his all.

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